It started out innocently enough with a cookbook. Then came the song sheets, photographs, playbills, postcards, not to mention cross-border bidding wars on eBay - all over Clayton’s best known celebrity: May Irwin.
Karen Killian has been amassing May Irwin memorabilia since she purchased the vaudevillian’s vintage cookbook titled Home Cooking at the Clayton Antique Show in 1993. Killian, who manages Captain Spicer's Gallery near "May Irwin Road" in Clayton, has been collecting Irwin memorabilia of the Broadway star in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Irwin, the Canadian-born star, built a pink granite mansion on a Thousand Island she renamed after herself.
She should know. The former school teacher is considered one of the leading authorities in the Thousand Islands on May Irwin
May Irwin entertained the likes of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, played hostess to wealthy guests at her island near Clayton – now Club Island - and even played softball there with Babe Ruth.
“She was a woman before her time in history and had an opinion about everything,” said Killian.
A performer who took to stages in London and New York City, Irwin is famously said to have given the Thousand Island dressing recipe to George Boldt to take to the chef of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the early 1900s. And the native of Whitby Ont. is notorious for the first-ever cinematic kiss with actor John C. Rice in the 1886 film, The Kiss. It is often referred to as the “50- foot kiss” for the amount of film used. The film lasted only a few seconds and was taken from a scene in the Broadway play The Widow Jones. The silver screen smooch was considered scandalous at the time and publicly denounced by clergy, as well as critics, who were not particularly wooed either.
One lamented: “Neither participant is physically attractive and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to beat when only life size. Magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over is absolutely disgusting.”
A waif she was not. But Irwin’s buxom figure was in vogue then and her talents as an actress, singer and vaudevillian made her a stage sensation.
Her beginnings were modest. One of America’s most beloved stars was born in Whitby Ont. as Ada May Campbell in 1862. Her mother nudged May and her younger sister, Flora, onto the stage after their father died when she was thirteen. The sisters appeared together in a singing act in Buffalo in 1874. By the fall of 1877, their careers had progressed and they were booked to appear at New York’s Metropolitan Theater at a popular music hall. May went on to perform in London and continued to entertain on Broadway until the early 1920s.
Irwin’s life took a tragic turn in 1886 when her husband of eight years, Frederick Keller, died. They had two sons. It is said she first came to Clayton because her sister Flora was in ill health and needed a place away from the city to recover.
Irwin bought Club Island at the head of Grindstone Island in 1901 and promptly renamed it - Irwin Isle. The grand nine-bedroom home featured a bowling alley and billiards room as well as a stained glass window featuring May as the Stature of Liberty. Irwin had her own railcar for commutes between the Clayton in the Thousand Islands and New York City.
The star came onto the Clayton scene during its golden era. At about the same time business barons were building Boldt Castle and Singer Castle (then known as The Towers) nearby on Heart Island and Dark Island respectively. Grand summer retreats including those of tobacco tycoon Charles G. Emery on Calumet Island and Remington typewriter magnate William O. Wyckoff on Carleton Island near Clayton, were becoming the norm in the Thousand Islands as the region became a playground for the rich and famous.
Steam yachts like The Magedoma, owned by Brockville’s millionaire owner of the Edwardian mansion called Fulford Place, George Fulford were floating fixtures on the St. Lawrence River. Irwin entertained other famous summer residents including artist Frederic Remington, composer Irving Berlin, and hotelier and Heart Island Island owner George Boldt at the estate with separate servants' quarters she called "May Irwin Inn".
But tough financial times took a toll on the Thousand Islands Gilded Age. Like many other island estates that burned, faded or crumbled as property taxes rose after the Depression and World War II, the pink mansion is no longer standing. It was torn down at the end of WWII and taken by barge to the mainland and sold.
Town and village of Clayton historian Norman Wagner, 75, said he can still remember Irwin’s glamorous getaway rising from the island. “It was still standing when I was a child,” he said.“It’s just bewildering to me that they let some of those castles and summer homes go.”
Wagner said May’s name and story are generally well-known in Clayton. She performed at the Clayton Opera House and some of her memorabilia is kept at the Thousand Island Museum. Irwin marched with suffragettes and fought for animal rights.
At 45, Irwin married her manager Kurt Eisfeldt. “She was a very strong woman,” Wagner said, “She didn’t let people get in her way.”
A Canadian ancestor of Irwin’s enjoys sharing the same family tree with the actress. Colin Crozier, a retired historian for the city of Hamilton, retraced his famous Canadian relative’s roots in Clayton with his wife Fern during a trip to the Thousand Islands in 1994. “It was a wonderful experience,” said the 91-year-old resident of Ancaster, Ontario.
Crozier’s grandfather, William H. Campbell, was Irwin’s first cousin. “We found out May Irwin is the patron saint of Clayton.” She was a popular entertainer invited to sing in New York City’s Central Park in 1935 to honor the year of the 100th anniversary Mark Twain’s birth. Irwin even gave President Wilson and his cabinet a command performance before the First World War, suggesting she be appointed the nation’s “secretary of laughter.”
“She had quite the personality,” said Killian, displaying a photograph of Irwin in boxing gloves and a dress on her front lawn of Irwin Island surrounded by a group of all male visitors dressed in dapper suits. She appeared in plays as The Wench That Wears the Striped Gown, De Moonshine Ribber and She’s a Thoroughbred.
Irwin raised cattle and chickens on farms in the Clayton area and retired to one of them in her later years. “She often made the statement she liked animals more than people,” Killian said.
She had racehorses (naming one after herself) and was more than at ease with local wildlife. “She’d go into town with a squirrel on her shoulder,” said Killian. She wrote the lyrics to several songs, including Hot Tamale Alley. Her signature numbers included The Bully Song and The Frog Song. Irwin’s colorful cooking columns even graced “The Housewife Page” in the New York Evening Journal.
“Ladies and gentlemen, er, that is ladies!” one started. The columns featured recipes alongside a healthy dash of Irwin’s humor and caricatures of the comedienne in the kitchen.
The headlines were huge but not exactly gripping. “May Irwin Cooks a Fish,” trumpets one. “May Irwin Dramatizes Potatoes” blares another.
Killian bought the cookbook titled: May Irwin’s Home Cooking, sixteen years ago for $75. The cookbook has recipes on the right hand side of the page and jokes and poems from Irwin’s vaudeville days on the left hand side. Irwin, a renowned cook, was supposed to publish another cookbook in 1914. Killian believes her 1904 edition contains notes from Irwin for the second one.
Killian's sleuthing also turned up microfilm through a contact at the Library of Congress. She found in the New York Public Library, copies of Irwin’s cooking newspaper articles, "Household Page" published in 1922.The retired Clinton N.Y. school teacher hopes to turn into a cookbook one day. And she also has connected with other May Irwin memorabilia collectors on both sides of the Canadian U.S. border.
Killian traced her cyber competitor to a library in Irwin’s hometown after years of bidding against each other for Irwin items up for auction on eBay. Brian Winter, archivist for the town of Whitby and public library, has been collecting information on Irwin for decades. The Whitby Central Library features the May Irwin Collection of over 100 items including her playbills, programs and photographs.
The highest paid actress and singer in the 1890s, Irwin became an even wealthier woman by making shrewd investments in real estate in New York City, New York state and Florida. “She went from rags to riches, literally,” said Wagner.
Irwin died in New York City in 1938 at the age of 76. But she left a long legacy in Clayton, where there are still reminders of the singer and actress today. Killian even sells May Irwin Stoneware Collection, a line of cookware and plates, at her shop.
After all these years she still has unanswered questions about her larger-than-life subject. “The puzzle pieces of her life are vast.”
Unlike the woman at the center of her collections, the soft-spoken Killian prefers to stay out of the spotlight. “It’s about May,” she said, politely declining a request to take her photograph next to pictures of the scene-stealing star from another era.
The curtain has long ago dropped on the region’s Gilded Age but decades after her death, May Irwin continues to get top billing.
By Kim Lunman. email@example.com
Kim Lunman is a member of our TI Life team. An award-winning Canadian journalist who lives in her hometown of Brockville, Kim is presently writing several new feature stories for a new magazine, Island Reflections which will be distributed across the Thousand Islands, on both the Canadian and US sides of the River, in July. She has written a number of articles for our magazine and we appreciate her enthusiasm and her ability to bring a story to life. Kim wanted to learn more about the famous May Irwin and as she says, "I had the bonus of meeting Karen Killian and discovering how Karen has passionately collected as much memorabilia as possible - there by keeping May Irwin's memory alive for all of us to enjoy."